Canadian Manufacturing

Concerted effort on innovation key to Alberta’s energy, forestry success

Advancements in bio-economy require looking at new opportunities across all sectors

CALGARY—Integration between Alberta’s energy sector and its agriculture and forestry industries could have major economic benefits while boosting environmental sustainability, according to a provincial research agency.

That message of joining forces was delivered during the 2013 Agriculture Biotechnology International Conference in Calgary, according to conference co-host Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (Al Bio).

“I think … there is going to have to be some serious thought given to the cheaper energy that’s emerging with shale gas, Al Bio CEO Dr. Stan Blade said in a release.

“There are still real opportunities for integration, but the whole system will have to work together to deliver the bio-derived products that are going to give customers value in terms of cost, performance and a reduced carbon footprint.”

As speaker Craig Crawford, president and CEO of the Ontario BioAuto Council, explained, plans to manufacture interior auto parts out of bio-based plastics—plans pursued since the council formed in 2007—have disintegrated as shale natural gas and natural gas liquids have made hydrocarbons more affordable.

That, said Crawford, means advancements in the bio-economy require looking at new opportunities, including developing “green” drilling muds and fracking fluids.

It also means using agricultural and forestry feedstock to develop bio-based alternatives to chemicals produced from hydrocarbons, as shortages are expected in these, especially butadienes, and the auto industry relies on them.

AI Bio is already responding, funding a project that’s exploring a way to make auto door panels from renewable fibres.

When fully commercialized, the new bio-product will be low cost, environmentally friendly and lighter, increasing the value.

Dr. Jack Saddler, professor, faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia, shared the opportunities the bio-economy offers the forestry sector during the conference.

Saddler explained that the forestry industry is in transition and there is a need to get more value from the tree at the same time that energy use is growing rapidly.

He likened the evolution of forestry to that of the hydrocarbon industry, pointing out that a significant part of the value in a barrel of oil lies in products other than those used for transportation.

The big opportunity for forestry is to use residues and other waste material in a similar way, such as for feedstock for chemicals.

Saddler believes that integrating bio-refineries with pulp mills that can make use of waste in innovative ways makes sense and will help the forestry sector diversify and succeed.

And, he explained, Canada has the opportunity to build on its reputation for certified sustainability in forestry to enhance its competitive advantage.

One challenge facing both agriculture and forestry, but particularly agriculture, is the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Here, too, innovation will be key.

Speaker Susan Wood-Bohm, executive director of AI Bio’s Biological GHG Management Program, shared some of the research AI Bio is currently funding that is exploring ways to reduce the quantity of methane and other gases being released into the atmosphere as a result of agriculture.

She said that the amount of GHGs released into the atmosphere can be improved by the application of best management practices, but it can be transformed by innovation.

One of AI Bio’s focuses is on supporting innovation in this area.

“We know that agriculture is an emitter of GHGs, but we have a lot of ways of solving some of those issues, such as improving fertilizer application and exploring ways to change the volumes of methane produced by Alberta’s significant livestock industry,” said Blade.

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